Toni Morrison

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 39

Morrison, Toni 1931–

Morrison is an American novelist and editor. Noted for her sensitive portrayals of black families, Morrison has been praised for her stylistic freshness and authentic dialogue. (See also CLC, Vol. 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32, rev. ed.)

Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1093

Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye is a novel portraying in poignant terms the tragic condition of blacks in a racist America. In her criticism of American life, she has structured her work in triadic patterns beginning with the reproduction of a passage three different times as the first three paragraphs of the work. Other triadic patterns emerge in her presentation of the tragedy of black life in relation to blacks, whites, and God or existential circumstances worked out through her thematic approach involving the problems of sex, racism, and love (or the dearth of love); in the aspect of ritual expressed through the scapegoat mechanism with the cat, the dog, and the girl, Pecola, as agents; and in the typology in the characterization affecting the three black family women—Geraldine, Mrs. MacTeer, and Mrs. Breedlove—and the three black prostitutes—The Maginot Line, China, and Poland. The pattern is concretized by the dictum that is generally accepted in the social milieu of the novel, a dictum which is clearly expressed by Calvin Hernton: "if you are white you are all right; if you are brown you can stick around; but if you are black … get back."

The opening paragraph of the novel in its simplicity and clarity could have been taken from a primer. The paragraph deals, quite ironically it turns out, with a white American ideal of the family unit—cohesive, happy, with love enough to spare to pets. It is a fairy-tale world, a dream world, childlike in extreme—it is desirable, but for man, particularly the black man, it is unattainable. (p. 112)

After the orderliness of the first paragraph, the same passage is reproduced as the second paragraph but without punctuation marks. The lack of punctuation shows some disorder in a world that could be orderly; however, the world is still recognizable….

The third paragraph is a repetition of the first but without punctuation and without world division, and it demonstrates the utter breakdown of order among the Breedloves. Thus we have three possible family situations: first Geraldine's (a counterfeit of the idealized white family), further down the MacTeers', and at the bottom the Breedloves'. They are all manifestations of the social concept of the family, just as the first three paragraphs are identical except that circumstances have changed the premise implicit in the ideal of the first paragraph. The Mother-Father-Dick-Jane concept is finally transmuted to the Mrs. Breedlove-Cholly-Sammy-Pecola situation. The transmutation is Morrison's indirect criticism of the white majority for the black family's situation and for what is taught to the black child in school, as evidenced by the primer paragraph, that in no way relates to the child's reality. The black man is attacked emotionally from childhood, living in two impossible worlds: the fairy tale world of lies when he is in contact with the white world and the equally incredible, grim world of black life.

The first section of The Bluest Eye, "Autumn," opens with a sentence which reflects the disorder and moral chaos of the novel: "Nuns go by as quiet as lust, and drunken men with sober eyes sing in the lobby of the Greek hotel" (emphasis added). Here "nuns" with an appropriate attribute, "quiet," are juxtaposed to "lust," a word not usually associated with nuns. Furthermore, the "drunken men" "sing" (a not unusual event) but their eyes are surprisingly "sober." The sentence...

(This entire section contains 1093 words.)

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opens up a strange world, one where expectations remain unfulfilled and contradictions are rife. These incongruities exist either because of man's oppression of irresponsibility against man or else because of existential circumstances. (p. 113)

The Bluest Eye has a structural resemblance to Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain. Just as Baldwin does not deal only with John, the protagonist, so Morrison does not deal only with Pecola. She is the centripetal force bringing all the different characters together, as John does in Go Tell It on the Mountain. (p. 114)

In handling the narrative, Morrison has put her literary heritage to very good use. One notices the influence of black writers in her arrangement and her material. Cholly's terrible life is in the tradition of Ellison's Trueblood. His surname, Breedlove, becomes an irony, since, deprived of love by his parents and society at large, he is expected to cultivate love. (p. 115)

Running through the novel is the theme of the scapegoat: Geraldine's cat, Bob the dog, and Pecola are the scapegoats supposed to cleanse American society through their involvement in some violent rituals. Pecola is associated with the black cat with blue eyes, whose eyes in the moment of death were transformed into "blue streaks of horror."… (p. 116)

Most characters in the novel are made typical, as are Geraldine, Mrs. MacTeer, and Mrs. Breedlove. Geraldine has been cast as an old black bourgeoisie; Hernton's description tallies with her role in the novel: "[They] share the same contempt and stereotyped views about 'lower-class' Negroes as the outer society. And when it comes to sex, the orthodox middle-class Negro woman is far more rigid, repressed, and neurotic than any other female in America." Her attitude towards lower-class blacks is dramatized in her brief encounter with Pecola when she permits her venom to erupt. (p. 118)

Another strong point in the novel is the intricate weaving of Pecola through the plot and her portrayal as a scapegoat with its implicit ambivalence. In the plot, however, Morrison ran into some difficulties with Pecola; although she tried to establish in two sentences a genetic factor for Pecola's madness, one feels the madness is a deus ex machina. One has a feeling that Morrison has fictionalized those sociological factors discussed in Hernton's Sex and Racism in America without first distancing herself enough from that work. (pp. 119-20)

[For] a first novel The Bluest Eye is appealing. In her simplicity of style and sentence structure, Morrison sometimes recalls Hemingway; with the themes of blindness, invisibility, incest, racism, she belongs to the tradition of Ellison; in the structure of the work she suggests Baldwin. What she has done, in essence, is to present us with old problems in a fresh language and with a fresh perspective. A central force of the work derives from her power to draw vignettes and her ability to portray emotions, seeing the world through the eyes of adolescent girls. The patterns that emerge in her handling of the novel demonstrate that she executed her work after careful planning. (p. 120)

Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi, "Order and Disorder in Toni Morrison's 'The Bluest Eye'," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by James Dean Young 1977), Vol. XIX, No. 1, 1977, pp. 112-20.

Vivian Garnick

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 449

[Song of Solomon] moves slowly, but with gathering momentum, into the heart of that myth-making impulse, pressing ever deeper on the human pain that is its motive force….

As readers of her previous novels, The Bluest Eye (1970) and Sula (1974), know, Toni Morrison is an extraordinarily good writer. Two pages into anything she writes, one feels the power of her language and the emotional authority behind that language. The world she creates is thick with an atmosphere through which her characters move slowly, in pain, ignorance, and hunger. And to a very large degree Morrison has the compelling ability to make one believe that all of us (Morrison, the characters, the reader) are penetrating that dark and hurtful terrain—the feel of a human life—simultaneously.

Unfortunately, in Song of Solomon, Morrison's ability is not exercised to the largest degree. At a certain point one begins to feel a manipulativeness in the book's structure, and then to sense that the characters are moving to fulfill the requirements of that structure. Once this happens, the plausibility of Milkman's search into the mythic, magical heart of the fear of leaving childhood—the book's central metaphor—begins to disintegrate. Revelations seem to be set up like pieces on a chessboard, and the "magic" loses its ability to command suspended disbelief.

With any other writer, this could be fatal. But it is not with Toni Morrison. There are so many individual moments of power and beauty in Song of Solomon that, ultimately, one closes the book warmed through by the richness of its sympathy, and by its breathtaking feel for the nature of sexual sorrow.

It seems to me that the source of the artistic trouble in Song of Solomon lies with Morrisons's choice of Milkman as protagonist—instead of with one of the women in the book. Milkman never really comes to life…. There are a few pages describing the blossoming love affair between [Milkman's sister] First Corinthians and a traumatized handyman that are filled with such astonishing pain and beauty that a book dominated by such descriptions would have been a masterpiece. These pages turn on Morrison's sure, hard knowledge of the inside of that woman's life: the grotesque anguish beneath the surface of a stifled existence….

Song of Solomon does not, in my view, achieve wholeness because it suffers from a misdirected angle of vision. But it is the work of a real writer and, as such, cannot fail to yield up moments of rich life, no matter what the direction of its vision.

Vivian Garnick, "Into the Dark Heart of Childhood," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc., 1977), August 29, 1977, p. 41.

Reynolds Price

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 445

Toni Morrison's first two books—"The Bluest Eye" with the purity of its terrors and "Sula" with its dense poetry and the depth of its probing into a small circle of lives—were strong novels. Yet, firm as they both were in achievement and promise, they didn't fully forecast her new book, "Song of Solomon." Here the depths of the younger work are still evident, but now they thrust outward, into wider fields, for longer intervals, encompassing many more lives. The result is a long prose tale that surveys nearly a century of American history as it impinges upon a single family. In short, this is a full novel—rich, slow enough to impress itself upon us like a love affair or a sickness….

"Song of Solomon" isn't, however, cast in the basically realistic mode of most family novels. In fact, its negotiations with fantasy, fable, song and allegory are so organic, continuous and unpredictable as to make any summary of its plot sound absurd; but absurdity is neither Morrison's strategy nor purpose. The purpose seems to be communication of painfully discovered and powerfully held convictions about the possibility of transcendence within human life, on the time-scale of a single life. The strategies are multiple and depend upon the actions of a large cast of black Americans, most of them related by blood. But after the loving, comical and demanding polyphony of the early chapters …, the theme begins to settle on one character and to develop around and out of him.

His name is Macon Dead, called "Milkman" because his mother nursed him well past infancy. (p. 1)

The end is unresolved. Does Milkman survive to use his new knowledge, or does he die at the hands of a hateful friend? The hint is that he lives…. But that very uncertainty is one more sign of the book's larger truthfulness (no big, good novel has every really ended; and none can, until it authoritatively describes the extinction from the universe of all human life); and while there are problems (occasional abortive pursuits of a character who vanishes, occasional luxuriant pauses on detail and the understandable but weakening omission of active white characters), "Song of Solomon" easily lifts above them on the wide slow wings of human sympathy, well-informed wit and the rare plain power to speak wisdom to other human beings. A long story, then, and better than good. Toni Morrison has earned attention and praise. Few Americans know, and can say, more than she has in this wise and spacious novel. (p. 48)

Reynolds Price, "Black Family Chronicle," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 11, 1977, pp. 1, 48.

Diane Johnson

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 434

[Song of Solomon] and to an even greater extent Morrison's earlier novels The Bluest Eye and Sula,… entirely concern black people who violate, victimize, and kill each other…. No relationships endure, and all are founded on exploitation. The victimization of blacks by whites is implicit but not the subject. The picture given by … Morrison of the plight of the decent, aspiring individual in the black family and community is more painful than the gloomiest impressions encouraged by either stereotype or sociology….

Song of Solomon is a picaresque and allegorical saga of a middle-class northern black family, the Deads, in particular of the son Milkman Dead, but also of parents, sisters, aunts, cousins, and, when Milkman eventually travels south in search of treasure and family history, of numerous distant connections. The resemblance to Roots is perhaps the least satisfying thing about the book; the characters are apt at any moment to burst into arias of familial lore less interesting than their immediate predicaments….

Here, as in Morrison's earlier and perhaps more affecting work, human relationships are symbolized by highly dramatic events. In Sula a mother pours gasoline over her son and lights it, and, in another place, a young woman watches with interest while her mother burns. But the horrors, rather as in Dickens, are nearly deprived of their grisliness by the tone. It might be a folktale in which someone cuts someone else's heart out and buries it under a tree, from which a thorn bush springs, and so on. Morrison is interested in black folklore, but in fact the influences of the Bible, Greek myths, and English and American literature are more evident, as in the work of other American writers.

There is a sense in which the use of myth is evasive. Morrison's effect is that of a folktale in which conventional narrative qualities like unity and suspense are sacrificed to the cumulative effects of individual, highly romantic or mythic episodes, whose individual implausibility, by forcing the reader to abandon the criteria of plausibility, cease to matter. In this way, the writer can imply that hers are not descriptions of reality but only symbols of a psychological condition. Yet if her tales are merely symbolic, the reader can complain of their sensationalism. If they are true, her view of a culture in which its members, for whatever reasons, cannot depend for safety and solace on even the simplest form of social cooperation is almost too harrowing to imagine. (p. 6)

Diane Johnson, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1977 NYREV, Inc.), November 10, 1977.

Maureen Howard

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 330

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison is a fine novel exuberantly constructed and stylistically full of the author's own delight in words. Morrison has a strong narrative voice and much of her novel's charm comes from an oral tradition, the love of simply telling, for example, how places and people got their names and how these names—Not Doctor Street, Ryna's Gulch, a boy called Milkman, Mr. Solomon, women known as Pilate, Sing and Sweet—contain history. There is an enchantment in Morrison's naming, a heightening of reality and language. Though each name is almost mythical it can be explained factually…. In Song of Solomon lives are as strange as folk tales and no less magical when they are at last construed.

Toni Morrison has written a chronicle of a black family living in a small industrial city on the shores of Lake Michigan, but the method of the book is to enlarge upon the very idea of family history, to scrape away at lore until truth is revealed. (pp. 185-86)

Song of Solomon is so rich in its use of common speech, so sophisticated in its use of literary traditions and language from the Bible to Faulkner, that I must add it is also extremely funny. Toni Morrison has a wonderful eye for the pretensions of genteel blacks and the sort of crude overstatements made by small time revolutionaries. Like many fine artists she dares to be corny—there is a funeral scene worthy of Dickens in which a crazed old woman sings "Who's been botherin' my baby girl" over her daughter, a poor deluded creature who has died of a broken heart. And like many great novels at the core it is a rather simple story of a boy growing to maturity…. As for myth, Toni Morrison knows it's dead material unless you give it life—that's art. (p. 186)

Maureen Howard, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1978 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXI, No. 1, Spring, 1978.


Morrison, Toni (1931 -)


Morrison, Toni (Vol. 194)